And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:4
The boys were singing shing-a-ling
The summer night we met
You were tan and seventeen
O how could I forget
When every star from near and far
Was watching from above
Watching two teenagers fall in love
What a picture these lyrics paint and definitely one I can remember from my own teenage years. I was seventeen and, yes, she was very tan. I had just moved to Atlanta and was trying to meet and make new friends in the summer of 1974 and she was the step-sister of one of my coworkers. He called her up to get a ride home one night after we closed and when she arrived, he introduced us. There must have been a little magic in the night air because, after a few minutes of conversation, he got his ride home and I got a date with her the next day.
The way we danced was not a dance
But more a long embrace
We held on to each other and
We floated there in space
And I was shy to kiss you while
The whole wide world could see
So shing-a-ling said everything for me
The movie Grease was still a few years away from reminding us of a time when the sounds of doo-wop ruled, but there were still a few songs rolling out of the speakers in my 1970 Chevy that could carry you back to those days. Ringo Starr was singing “You’re Sixteen” by Johnny Burdette, Grand Funk had a hit with Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion” and The Guess Who had us all singing along to “Clap For The Wolfman”.
And oh the poor old, old folks
They thought we’d lost our minds
They could not make heads or tails
Of the young folks’ funny rhymes
But you and I knew all the words
And we always sang along to
Every generation has a hard time understanding some of the musical styles and preferences of the next – and vice versa- but I think the translations from some of the great old doo-wop songs and their trademark nonsensical lyrics had to be hard for the generations on either side to fathom.
“Shama-lama” and it’s cousin “Rama-lama”, “Sh-boom”, “Rat da tat tat”, “Shinga ling”, “Bomp bomp ba bomp”, “Dip-de-dip-de-dip”, “Oo-wah, oo-wah” and even “Doo-wop” itself are just a few examples of the lyrical style incorporated in the genre.
It may have sounded like gibberish to some, but young hearts in love instinctively understood every word.
So after years and after tears
And after summers past
The old folks tried to warn us
How our love would never last
And so intense that romantic swell must have been, just as those who are filled with the love of the Holy Spirit also sometimes burst out into languages that no one can understand.
I’ve never seen anyone “speaking in tongues” firsthand, but I know folks who have. If you ever want to experience it for yourself, just check out your local Pentecostal church and ask them when they are going to have their next Revival. It’s not my usual taste in worship style, but I do think it might be invigorating every now and then!
And oh the poor old, old folks
They smile and walk away
But I bet they did some
Sham-a-lama-ding-dong in their day
Jesse Winchester was a southern born and bred singer-songwriter who I believe could have been every bit as influential on the 70’s music scene as James Taylor, if not for his having left the country for Canada to avoid service in the Vietnam war. Branded a “draft dodger” and prohibited from playing in the U.S., he never achieved a high level of popularity as a performer, but his work as a songwriter flourished nonetheless.
Jesse’s songs were recorded by countless artists as diverse as George Strait, Patti Page, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris, Wilson Pickett, The Everly Brothers, Nicolette Larson and many, many more.
Elvis Costello included Jesse Winchester’s 1970 debut album in his “500 Albums You Need” list created in Vanity Fair in 2000.
Oh those sweet old love songs
Every word rings true
Sham-a-ling-dong-ding means sweetheart
Sham-a-ling-dang-dong does too
And it means that right here in my arms
That’s where you belong
And it means sham-a-ling-dong-ding
Jesse, along with many others who left for other parts of the world to avoid the war, was granted amnesty by President Jimmy Carter in 1976. His first U.S. concert was sold out in Burlington, Vermont and was covered by Rolling Stone magazine who dubbed him “the greatest voice of the decade”.
“Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” was on Jesse’s final album Love Filling Station in 2009 and quite fittingly was featured that same year on Elvis Costello’s Spectacle TV series. I think it showcases not only his tremendous gift songwriting and vocal style but his great talent as a guitar player, as well.
Jesse lost his battle with cancer and passed away at his home in Virginia earlier this year, but his gift lives on through the many hit songs he penned for others.
So, young or old, and even though we might not understand exactly what some of those old doo-wop lyrics meant, just as Jesse sang, I’m sure we’ve all experienced a little “Sham-A-Lama” of our own sometime throughout our days.
Listen to Jesse live on Spectacle here: